“Zombie” bill angers public school parents

zombie billThe Parent Imperfect took the time this past Wednesday to write that no deal had been reached on the bill to lift the cap on charter schools in our state. Normally, the failure of a bill to get a positive recommendation from the relevant committee would be the kiss of death, at least for the current session. But this is not just any bill. As many feared, the failure to gain the support of the Joint Education Committee created only a minor annoyance for the drive to create open season on charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

Little did I know that the people in the Massachusetts Legislature who feel that lifting the charter cap is the critical next step in educational reform in Massachusetts wouldn’t even wait 24 hours to resurrect the idea. Before Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz could even communicate with her constituents about what had happened, her illustrious Joint Ed Committee Co-Chair, Rep. Alice Peisch, had done the deed. The State Rep. from Wellesley created a new bill with a new number and without the language on charter reimbursements that so bothered charter growth proponents. Under the new bill, there would be no cap on charter expansion, even if the Legislature declined to reimburse even one cent of its legal obligation to school districts for charter tuition payments. The maneuver made a joke of all of the hand wringing around a supposed compromise on the original bill.

Citizens for Public Schools called the new Peisch bill a “zombie” bill, which I think nicely captures the nature of the legislation. Not only did Rep. Peisch produce the zombie bill in record time (it was certainly being drafted as the compromise charade was underway), but she managed to get it approved by a voice vote at a sparsely attended session of the House of Representatives (is there a roll call in the House?). I disagree completely with what Ms. Peisch did, but you have to admire her cheek.

More and stopPeisch delivered to charter proponents what Sen. Chang-Díaz had refused to give them…legislation to remove the cap on charter expansion with almost no conditions. In less that 24 hours, public school districts and the families who depend on public schools had been “peisched.” That is, outmaneuvered by a legislator with a strong personal commitment to education reform, and little or no sense of accountability to urban public school districts and the families that need them. A reasonable person might ask if Rep. Peisch’s alleged personal involvement with charter and other educational reform organizations might create a conflict of interest, or at least a conflict of conscience for her on this issue.  One might wonder such things, but, in Massachusetts, such questions often go unanswered. Any conflict here would, of course, pale in comparison to the conflicts that abound in our “government by checkbook” at all levels.

The Peisch bill still must clear several hurdles to become law. The Senate must approve it and the Governor must sign it to name two such hurdles. Charter expansion obviously has as many powerful friends in the Legislature as it has outside of it, and the governor has expressed few reservations about creating more charters. That said, the public discussion of this bill has educated many in the community, as well as some in the media and more than a few members of the Legislature about the lack of accountability of charters and the financial and other pressures on public schools that result from charter growth. This is not a slam dunk.

Merely getting peisched one time will not keep these people from continuing to make their views known. I remain hopeful that the zombie bill–or at least the charter cap provision–can be put on hold. For the umpteenth time, I do not oppose charter schools or think existing schools should be closed down. They should be more accountable on many issues, and their number should not be significantly expanded until policymakers understand much better (and address in a policy) the impact of such expansion on traditional public schools and their students. Ultimately, if we want to establish a separate system of essentially independent schools, we should find another way to finance those schools that does not drain financial and political support from public school districts.

If you are concerned about the zombie bill, take a few minutes and contact your State Representative and/or State Senator on the matter. If you’re not clear who this is, it’s easy to find your legislators and their contact information.

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8 Comments

Filed under Charter Schools

8 responses to ““Zombie” bill angers public school parents

  1. Reblogged this on Panorama of the Mountains and commented:
    It’s really brazen how the representative of a tony, mostly-white suburb has done an end run around compromise and democracy to force this bill through the house. I really can’t imagine that the citizens of Wellesley see it in their best interests to underfund public schools in urban areas. More likely, Peisch is not representing the interests of her constituents but those of hedge fund managers like DFER and billionaires like Bill Gates and the Waltons. If only more elected leaders were as brave and honest as Sonia Chang-Diaz.

    • Thanks, Liam, for putting this on “Panorama,” which is great. Again, I won’t guess at Rep. Peisch’s motivations, but I feel strongly that this bill will have a negative effect, regardless of what she is thinking. I understand the role of several big foundations and some hedge fund managers in the explosion of charter schools across the country, but I have a harder time understanding how those interests affect legislative debates like the one we are in the middle of. Perhaps others can share more light on that one.

      • It is hard to know the exact motivations, but there are conservative/corporate organizations like ALEC working methodically to enact legislation friendly to their own interests in state legislatures across the nation. The charter school proponents seem to be following the same model of getting the legislatures in all 50 states to push their agenda, and Peisch certainly seems to be representing their interests.

  2. The passion amongst some legislators for ripping the financial muscle out of public education is really astonishing. Peisch is in some ways typical of the modern education reformer, who are notoriously driven by a wealthy elite personally removed from urban public education. Never in life would they be ready to admit that their position of privilege has anything to do with the condition of resource starved public schools that they want to ‘fix or nix’. Their solution is predicated on the principle that wealth inequality is unassailable, and that in the resulting scarcity only a fraction of the children in poor urban districts can be pulled into the charter life-boat. The rest must make do with whatever resources are left to the traditional public schools. It is a vile and cowardly calculus.

    • Thanks, Roger, for your comment. I honestly don’t know enough about Rep. Peisch to know her personal motivations around this, but I do believe that the calculus you describe is at the center of the current momentum for ed reform. But it is important not to overlook the fact that urban families who feel abandoned by public education systems give the demand for the charter alternative a sense of urgency and righteousness that can’t be explained away. I recently read an article by, of all people, a law professor from South Carolina who suggested that charters are winning these debates because their supporters possess many of the characteristics of a social movement, while civil rights reformers have become too enamored of the courts and “evidence,” I think he’s right.

  3. John

    Here’s another point of view. We live in a Gateway City (a city not named “Boston”) and we enrolled our daughter at a charter school for grades 5 – 12. Because we had this choice available to us, we didn’t have to move. We pay our state and local taxes too and after several years of advocating for change within the system, we saw little to give us hope. I agree that many of the charter school reformers can be elitist. Maybe I am one of them. But I’ve been in a lot of charter schools over the last few years and see the positive difference they are making. That said, the Legislature needs to fully fund the reimbursement program and important bills like this should not be, to use your phrase, peisched. Call my calculus “vile” and “cowardly” if you like, but if I get a chance to vote “yes” on a ballot question to lift the cap, I’ll be first in line.

    • Great to hear your point of view, John. As I have tried to say at every turn, this is not a simple issue. Charter schools have worked for a good number of people, and most of those people think that there should be more of them. The question for me is not whether you pay your taxes or not (I’m sure you do), but what effect more charters will have on all children. I can be wrong (as can you, I assume), but I don’t see that we can afford a separate system that takes resources away from the one that must take my children, as well as all others (including yours, if she had needed to leave her charter, as many do). That this debate is happening precisely as the BPS is getting set to lay off over 200 people only stokes the fire. If the vile and cowardly shoe fits, wear it, but I didn’t use those terms, and don’t find them particularly useful. I believe that some people favor charters because they’ve seen them work and they have given up on fixing the public system. I bet you’d agree that others support charters for reasons that are, frankly, less noble. That’s a calculus that I have less patience with.

  4. I think that’s right, Liam. I don’t know enough about Rep. Peisch, or her relationship to any of that, but I’m quite certain that the relationships exist.

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